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Digital Tools for Research: a practical guide

Digital tools for research

A practical guide to the digital tools you can use for research when working on theses, dissertations, and research projects.
Digital Tools for Research

This practical guide contains resources and advice relating to digital tools you can use for research, including theses, dissertations, and other research projects.

Check out the training session resources for slides and other material from our training sessions that relate to the research process.

Choosing and using digital tools

There's a wealth of technology out there that can help us with all sorts of tasks. Sometimes the real question is, which ones should I use? What will save take rather than take up time?

Choosing the right tool

When choosing a tool, a task-based approach is best: what is it you actually need to do? Defining your tasks before you try looking for or using any new applications will make evaluating them easier.

When searching for digital tools, you'll want to think about:

  • What do you need to do?
  • What devices do you have and which do you ideally want to use the tool on?
  • Are there free tools? Does the university provide one? Is there a 'standard' tool for the task that people in your discipline use?
  • How much time do you have to dedicate to learning to use the tool? Is this for a big recurring task, or a small quick one?

Troubleshooting digital problems

Everyone comes across problems when using technology. Troubleshooting, or analysing and solving these problems, is a key skill when working digitally.

Sometimes troubleshooting will mean searching online, or looking at help documentation. It might be trying to work out exactly what the problem is and if you can spot a way to solve it. And it might be having the confidence to know what your problem is, but know you don't know how to fix it, and to ask for help.

Our Digital troubleshooting slides will give you some hints and tips for how to troubleshoot issues with digital tools and technology.

Finding literature and managing reading

Digital tools can help with literature searching and reviews, reading and critiquing content, and managing what you've found.

Finding literature and resources

You'll be used to using a range of sources of information in your academic work, but finding the literature and digital resources you need for your research require search skills and knowing what you can get access to. The Library has put together a Subject Guide for each subject, which has links to key databases and resources for that discipline, or you can get in touch with your Academic Liaison Librarian if you have specific questions.

The Library has access to a range of E-resources including databases and digital collections that you can use in your research.

Unsure how to actually find the right things? The Find & Research Skills Guide pages have guidance on using databases, search skills, and different kinds of sources. There's also advice on how to evaluate the information you find.

Reading critically and reviewing literature

So you've found things to read, but how do you question them? It's important to think about the evidence and arguments presented, consider bias and limitations, and examine the interpretations made by the author.

When working online, it is also crucial to think about the reliability and credibility of online sources as they relate to your research: just because you've read it online doesn't make it true or valid!

If you're going to be completing a systematic review, or need to do a literature review for your dissertation or thesis, then our Practical Guide to Systematic Reviews should help you think about the steps involved.

Managing your references

When researching, it is important to keep track of the references for the material you find and read. You might use a Word document, a spreadsheet, or a notebook for keeping track of the citation information for your reading material, or you might want to use a tool specifically designed for the job.

Reference management software is designed to help you collect your references together, organise them, and then cite texts in written work. The main options available at York are EndNote, Mendeley, Zotero, and Paperpile, and you can find out more on our Practical Guide to Reference Management.

Organisation and collaboration

There's a lot to keep on top of with any research project, and there's a lot of tools out there to help you too. As with any digital tools, it is important to make sure that organisation tools save you time, not make you more work without any benefits.

Managing your time and workload

Everyone has different techniques for managing their time. Some people like calendars and setting deadlines, other people prefer flexibility and keeping track of what has been done, rather than planning exactly what to do.

Any research project, thesis, or dissertation is going to have deadlines. Calendar applications like Google Calendar are a useful way to keep track of key dates, both academic and otherwise, and share these with others. Calendar apps are also useful for planning your time and blocking out time for certain tasks.

There are many tools for keeping to-do lists or post-it notes. Most devices come with built-in notes apps, or you can use a tool like Google Keep which will sync your notes across different devices.

For larger pieces of work, you might want to try a project management tool like Trello to help you keep track of all the different tasks and areas of work you have to complete. Alternatively, you could create a spreadsheet that helps you keep track of tasks, possibly based on this Google Sheets to-do list template (go to File > Make a copy if you want to try it out).

Dealing with (digital) distractions

Trying to get things done when the entire internet is just sitting there can be difficult. Our Being Organised slides have some ideas, but here's some top tips:

Limit your time on certain websites. If you need it, there are a range of tools out there for blocking certain websites or limiting your time on them each day.

Turn off notifications. You can set Do Not Disturb on both Android and iOS to stop notifications temporarily on a phone or tablet. Don't keep tabs open with social media if you'll feel the need to click whenever you see a notification, and consider only checking emails at certain times if that becomes too distracting.

Separate work and fun. Use different web browsers or profiles to separate out work and fun on one device. For example, you can set up a personal and a university profile in Chrome by adding multiple profiles. This allows you to

Embrace distractions (sometimes). Give yourself set times to get distracted by the internet. Let yourself scroll news sites or catch up on messages from friends at certain times.

Keeping in touch and managing email

There are so many tools we use for keeping in touch with people digitally, but sometimes it can be hard finding the right way of contacting the right person, or managing work-related notifications.

Email is a vital tool in the modern world, but it can also be one of the biggest sources of stress! Here's a few suggestions for ways to combat that stress:

  • Check email at specific times, rather than being distracted by every new email.
  • Use labels or folders to move emails out of your 'inbox' view, but still keep them for later.
  • If you have loads of old unread emails, go through and deleting them in batches to clear your inbox (and have a less imposing number of unread emails).
  • Use a filter in Gmail to mark particular emails (such as those from your supervisor) as important, or star them. You can also change your inbox layout in Gmail so that starred or important emails appear at the top. Then you'll only see ones you really need to right away, and can check others when you have time.

Video calling is very useful, especially when researching remotely. The University has access to a range of video conferencing tools, including Zoom, Google Meet, and Collaborate Ultra.

You can set up a Zoom or Google Meet meeting easily to communicate with anyone you need to, and you can also do things like screen sharing if you need to work on research together remotely.

Collaborating digitally

Many digital tools these days have been designed with synchronous (i.e. at the same time) collaboration in mind. This makes it easier to work with other people, or share your work for feedback with others.

Your University Google account will give you access to the range of Google Apps that have collaborative functionality, such as Google Docs and Google Sheets. Our Skills Guide on collaborating with Google has ideas for how you can use these effectively.

Gathering and working with data

There's so many areas of working with data and so many tools out there to use that there's a whole separate page for resources and tips on collecting and working with data in your research.

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Managing your files

The last thing you want is to be spending half your time looking for the right file, or to lose that crucial file near a deadline. Here are some tips for using IT effectively to manage your files:

Tips for managing files

  • Give sensible names.
    Don't name files 'Copy of copy of second draft 5'. Give files and folders names that make sense and can form a logical path if needed. Use dates for drafts so it is clear exactly where they fit into your writing process. If you create notes for different texts or chapters, make sure you can link that file to the text without having to open it, by using a relevant name.
  • Back up your work.
    You don't want to lose files, whether notes or drafts or data, so make sure you always back up your work. Using a cloud storage system like Google Drive (which you have access to through your University Google account) also makes it easier to share work with others and access your files from different devices and locations.
  • Save in the right place
    Maybe it's easy to save everything on your Desktop or in your Downloads folder, but this won't make life any easier in the future when you're looking for files. Downloading a useful PDF? Put it in a useful folder and rename it to make sure you know what it is. Need to access a draft on the go? Don't email it to yourself, upload it to Google Drive or another cloud storage system so you can find and access it more easily now and in the future.
  • Manage your research data.
    If you're going to be generating research data, you need to know how you're storing and managing it. What is research data management?

Writing and communicating

Research has to be communicated in some way. Whether that's writing it up as a dissertation or thesis, presenting findings in a talk or on a poster, or some other method, here's a range of tips for using the digital tools that make this easier.

Creating text documents

Think you know how to use Microsoft Word (or Google Docs, or any other text processing tool)? Maybe you do, but you don't know what you don't know, and these tools are full of features to make creating text documents easier for you and for anyone reading them.

Top tips for using text processing tools (like Word) well:

  1. Use styles. Styles tell the computer where different elements of your document are: the title, headings, main text, captions, footnotes, etc. As the computer can't 'see' your document, this is the only way it knows the sturcture of your document. Styles allow you to control the appearance (font, size, colour) of these elements without having to change them individually, ensure the document is set up for features such as automatic table of contents and heading numbering, and make sure the document is accessible (as it can be read by screen readers correctly).
  2. Use page breaks. How do you put content onto a new page? Press the Enter key a lot? Panic that it all moves around every time you add a line of content? Text processing tools have a feature called a 'page break', which allows you to start a new page and have that new page always start at that point in the text.
  3. Know what features you need. When choosing a text processing tool, you need to think about the features you need and the purpose of your document. For onscreen, collaborative documents, Google Docs is often most useful, whereas for long, structured documents like theses, you'll probably want to use MS Word as it has a range of features for formatting complex documents.

For more indepth advice on using creating a thesis or dissertation in Microsoft Word, we have a Thesis Essentials PDF guide (which you can print out if you want) and Thesis Essentials exercises to help you practice using these features.

Designing presentations

At some point, you're likely to want to present your work, whether at a conference, giving a talk, or to your supervisor. Presentation software like PowerPoint and Google Slides is another example of a tool that lots of people have used, but are often missing out on useful features or hints that'll save time and engage your audience.

In terms of tools, PowerPoint gives you the widest range of options for features, including using animations to break down content into sections that you deliver sequentially. PowerPoint is also useful if you want to record your presentation as a video with a voiceover, which you can do within PowerPoint itself and export as a video file.

Google Slides has fewer options, but is useful for sharing presentations with a group of people, or accessing on the go.

Prezi is sometimes used for presentations with a less formal tone, but you have to be careful not to distract from the content with the movement and animations.

Creating academic posters

Posters are a common way to share research findings, especially at conferences and events. Combining key points with images, diagrams, and graphs can engage audiences and also make you think about your topic in a different light.

PowerPoint is a surprisingly good tool for creating academic posters, as it allows you to easily create the right page size, add backgrounds, text, and other content, and export in a PDF format for printing. On our Skills Guide you'll find resources on how to set up your page, add and customise content, and export the final product.


When creating any academic work in any format or on any platform, you'll want to know how to protect your own copyright and how to stay legal when using copyright material.

Research computing

At York we have a range of computing facilities to help with your research, including high performance computing for faster and more complex computational analysis.

See the Research computing pages for more details on the services offered.

You can also find further support with research computing on the Research Computing Support wiki. For specific queries, contact IT Support.

Further support and training

There's a range of support and training available from the University for help with research, including remote appointments and online resources.

The Library's Subject Guides provide resources and links tailored to each specific subject. For more indepth support with resource needs, contact your Academic Liaison Librarian (linked on each subject's guide) for a phone or video call appointment.

If you're looking for training sessions and resources, the training from Library and IT open to anyone at the University can be found on the Skills Guide Training page. PGR students can also find training on SkillsForge.

The Library's Open Research team have a range of resources and training sessions, including information on literature, research data, copyright, open access, and more.

You can get skills guidance including help with maths and statistics from the Maths Skills Centre, and help with writing and language from the Writing & Language Skills Centre.

Having difficulty using or setting up a digital tool? Email or call IT Support for help with software queries or other IT issues.